Now more than ever, we can educate ourselves about mental health and learn how to support our loved ones who are struggling.

Photo by Ellie L

The World Health Organization estimates that 264 million people worldwide struggle with depression. In the United States alone, nearly one in five adults experience mental illness each year, and rates are expected to increase given the effects of COVID-19. As people suffer the loss of loved ones, job layoffs, financial insecurity, and adjust to the “new normal,” Mental Health Awareness Month seems especially timely. Now more than ever, we can educate ourselves about mental health and learn how to support our loved ones who are struggling.

Anxiety and depression are among the most commonly reported mental health challenges, and both can be exacerbated by the uncertainty and long periods of isolation we are experiencing now. Fortunately, there are practical ways to support your friend or family member during this time. Below are a few helpful tips for supporting your loved one.

Check in with the person.
When dealing with a mental health issue, it is common for folks to withdraw from normal activities, self-isolate, and even distance themselves from people who are close to them. Those who need treatment regularly do not receive the help they need and deserve, and it can be difficult and uncomfortable to ask for help. If you get the sense that a loved one is struggling, consider asking them how they are doing or inviting them to engage in a social activity. Mindfully check-in without prying or putting pressure on the person. For instance, you may say, “I can see that you’re overwhelmed. Is there anything on your mind?”

Practice active listening.
When someone musters the courage to open up about their personal mental health, it’s essential that they feel seen and heard. As a member of their support system, active listening is a great way to communicate that you genuinely care. You can practice active listening by maintaining eye contact, nodding, and allowing the person space and time to explain what’s on their mind. Rather than preparing what you’re going to say next or letting your mind drift to what’s on your grocery list, practice staying engaged, and present with your loved one. 

Validate the person’s experiences.
Statements like “just feel better!” or “look on the bright side!” typically aren’t the most helpful for anyone. Although well-intentioned, these statements can be invalidating and extremely discouraging for a person navigating a mental health issue. If a loved one communicates with you about their struggles, practice responding with validating statements like “This must be really difficult for you,” or “How frustrating. I can see why you would feel upset about that.” This creates a space where the person feels heard and is more likely to continue the conversation over time.

Stay educated and informed.
One of the best ways to support a loved one is to educate yourself about mental health and stay informed about what they may be going through. Is the person experiencing anxiety, depression, or possibly engaging in substance use? Could there be another underlying issue contributing to their feelings? Platforms like the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Services Administration (SAMHSA) can help you stay informed about further ways to help the person in need.

Connect them with a professional who can help.
When someone you care about is struggling with mental health, your instinct may be to fix your loved one’s behavior or help heal what they are going through. While it’s great to show ongoing compassion and support, know that licensed professionals are well-equipped to handle difficulties that are beyond our scope. If your loved one could use additional support, you may kindly suggest that they seek therapy or counseling. 

If the person isn’t open to seeing a therapist quite yet, they may prefer to explore a resource like Crisis Text Line, which provides free, 24/7 text support for folks in the US, UK, and Canada. The organization To Write Love On Her Arms has helpful resources, including articles and a new, find help tool that connects people with free and reduced cost counseling in their area. Having a list of resources can be helpful to have on hand as you continue being a supportive figure for your loved one.

Remember to care for yourself.
As you work to support your loved one, don’t forget to take care of yourself, too! Healthy boundaries are not only important; they are necessary. Make sure to engage in nourishing activities that help you feel good, whether it is practicing yoga, going for a jog, or chatting with a friend on FaceTime. Everyone is managing something difficult right now, and when we take care of ourselves, we also become better equipped to care for those around us.

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